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Robin Lerner, US Department of State

The domestic appetite for teachers is very high: US schools love international teachers
January 16 2015
5 Min Read

Robin Lerner oversees the Exchange Visitor Program in her role at the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. She talks to The PIE about the growing cultural facets of exchange and her ambitions to boost the J-1 Teacher Exchange programme.

The PIE: What is your role at the US Department of State?

RL: My title is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Private Sector Exchange. In short, I am Deputy to the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and I oversee non-U.S. Government-funded exchanges that come inbound to the United States as part of the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program (EVP). I oversee regulation of the EVP, as well as the monitoring of the program implementers, called sponsors.

The PIE: How big is that sector?

RL: Some 275,000 people came into the US in 2013 on a privately-funded exchange and we have, I think, around 1,400 sponsors that we oversee and that we allow to sponsor an exchange programme.

Some 275,000 people came into the US in 2013 on a privately-funded exchange and we have around 1,400 sponsors

The PIE: What has been the biggest challenge?

RL: When I came in two and a half years ago, I had a focus on reform. The Summer Work Travel Program, at its height in 2008-2009, had risen to almost 150,000 participants coming from all over the world, and the regulations for overseeing the programme were not strong enough given that number of people.

We had a negative incident in 2011 which gained national notoriety. In response, the State Department made the decision to bring those programmes closer to our overall public diplomacy efforts. To do so, we needed to understand these programmes better because they’re run externally. They asked me to come in and work to reform the programmes, at quite a lightening speed for a government agency.

We wrote new regulations in May 2012, and adopted a very strong communicative approach with sponsors. We have been sending staff out to monitor programmes and participate in cultural activities for the past three summers. I’ve also launched a new blog to highlight the good happening in these programmes.

My objective is to level the playing field. There are many different sponsors implementing their standards, which result in varying quality levels. I want to raise the floor and see all sponsors at a certain level of quality. The sponsors previously thought once they’d got the visa for the student, the expectations of them were done. Now, I’m saying: once you get the visa for them, and the housing and the transportation, and the cultural stuff, and they don’t have any incidents, and they’re healthy, safe and happy and they go home, ok now you’re done, but then start on the alumni engagement.

I want to raise the floor and see all sponsors at a certain level of quality

I have to commend the sponsors; they have really embraced the change. There’s been a lot of innovation in terms of what sponsors have been doing culturally and promoting a lot more of the cultural side of the programmes. There are always going to be placements that go wrong. What we need to see now is that sponsors respond to those bad situations, and they are. That said, it is going to be a constant evolution.

The PIE: What’s your long-term vision?

RL: We, as a government, need to take more advantage of these kinds of programmes, because 85% of the 275,000 people that come on privately-funded exchanges are under the age of 30 and 53% are women and girls. We’ve got really good demographics. People are coming from 200 different countries and territories. We’ve got a global reach, with new people that our public affairs sections at US embassies may not yet have been in touch with, so I would like to tap more into those and know them better. In the future I’d love to see us creating more partnerships around these programmes.

The PIE: Are there any fields that you would personally like to see grow?

RL: I love the teacher exchange. It’s so squarely educational and cultural, which is what we’re all about. I think that the domestic appetite for teachers is very high: US schools love international teachers. The more we internationalise our schools, the better. Teacher exchange is very small right now. At any given time we have about 3,000 in the country, so I’d like to test the waters to see if we might increase that.

The more we internationalise our schools, the better

Sometimes exchange teachers will go into an urban area in a place where there might be high teacher turnover, and they bring experience. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for these teachers and their English is also vastly improved. We even see them doing bridging programmes back with their home schools. It’s such a drop in the bucket of need and yet it’s not even about need; it’s about being innovative in our schools. That’s the trend in the US, more internationalisation in our schools.

I’d love to see the high school exchange programme grow too. We have to figure that one out because it’s been very complicated. For me, until we know we’ve got good schools that are committed to continuing year after year, we’re not growing, we’re trying to maintain status quo.

We are also seeing growth in the intern areas, which is fantastic. We just went through a big analysis of that category and will look at what kinds of changes we need to see in that category. That said, we see it as a healthy category.

The PIE: What are the emerging markets?

RL: China as a sending country in the Exchange Visitor Program has definitely grown very quickly. I also find it interesting that we have more global representation within the top sending countries. It used to be a very Europe-dominated programme, but it’s very diverse now. We see people coming from Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Egypt, and Jordan. Africa is still really dominated by South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, and a little from Ghana, but there’s definitely more room for growth in Africa.

It used to be a very Europe-dominated programme, but it’s very diverse now

The PIE: Do you ever get to know the people who come over to the US on these programmes?

RL: My blog, Route J-1, is all about that! I’ve met such amazing people. I met this fascinating young girl from Romania who came from a very poor family and she got herself onto the programme three times, which cost a lot of money, but her English was fantastic and she had such a positive attitude. Tragedy had happened in her family the year before, but she stayed and the people at Grand Canyon, where she was placed, became family to her.

All these students have so much to offer the world and they’ve got a lot of guts and self-initiative and drive. I have respect for all of them coming over, they’re such high quality students.

The PIE: Where does the US stand on the global scale with regards to its exchange programmes?

We would love to have more funding from Congress, but we have this J-1 Visa Program that no one else has. I think that we have quite a number of opportunities. I’m impressed by the money that Brazil is putting into outbound exchanges and I would love to see more reciprocity in our own programmes.

We are opening up a study abroad office in our Bureau, because it’s a major goal of ours to get American students studying abroad and it’s tough for a number of reasons.

The PIE: What trends can you foresee?

RL: We talk a lot about skills building and entrepreneurship and the internship side. We’re all about internships now. And we talk about 100,000 Strong in the Americas. Internships for credit is the name of the game, and it’s an area where we really would like to see more growth and more partnerships between universities and sponsors to create programmes where students will be getting credit. Youth, skills, entrepreneurship, these are priority areas for us now.

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